[World Premiere curtain call: cast and team of “Orlando”, Vienna State Opera, Dec. 8th, 2019]
This review, I could try to write traditionally. I could attempt to describe the staging, the score, the voices. (I would fail. This will be a jumble.) But I am not going to do that. “Orlando” is not a traditional evening, either, although it situates itself strongly in relation to tradition and its own position within the field of opera.
To grasp what this „Orlando“ means – what it can mean -, it is essential to gather up the backdrop against which it is happening. Neuwirth‘s „Orlando“ is the first opera composed by a woman that is played at Vienna State Opera, a house with a male leading trio, with the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit that is overwhelmingly white male even in comparison to other orchestras (that doesn’t take away from their brilliant playing of this score, and from Matthias Pintscher’s precise conducting). To commission, in that environment, an opera from a composer that happens to be a woman, and to let that composer choose their sujet, and to have that sujet be Woolf’s “Orlando” – a work that I would, in current terms, describe as queer feminist – : that is huge. To make this a main stage event with all departments and a large budget behind it: also huge. And to have, for this world premiere, a standing room waiting line that almost wrapped around the block when I arrived mid-afternoon: that is huge, too.
I could try to talk about this evening objectively. But I want to talk about it as a queer woman. And while I experience all shows as a queer woman, this was the rare case that a show explicitly, intentionally spoke to me as such. This opera didn’t accidentally leave me a free seat at the table, it wrote me a place-card. At the head of the table. I can still not quite express what that means to me.*
On this Sunday night, a large part of the audience were people who don’t usually take a seat at the State Opera table, and it looked good: diverse, younger, creative. International in a way beyond money and tourism. Many people had visibly come for the costumes by COMMEdesGARÇONS – there was everything from a breathtaking Sasha copy (from the Sally Potter movie) to a gentlemen in full quilt.
There was the queer lady college crowd, students and professors alike, some with dog-eared copies of Woolf’s “Orlando” in hand.** There was the short-haired silver fox in a leather vest. The queue was home in a way it usually isn’t.
Neuwirth’s “Orlando”, while it will be streamed tonight, is primarily an experience in space and time – I can only talk about it as a lived physical event in a specific hall, with my gaze and hearing engaged in multiple angles at once. It is a multimedia opera, immersive and overwhelming: sound comes from different sites. At several points, there’s coconot horse hooves played from glittering silhouettes in the stage boxes left and right. Once, the back door up on the gallery opens and brass sounds from behind. At two points, the space ship chandeleer below the ceiling lights up, and choir singing seems to come from up there, too.
The pit is full with a variety of instruments, from the most elaborate to children’s toys, and trust me when I say the pit is FULL. The first rows of the parquet standing room are likewise full, occupied by laptops for the sound engineering of the eletronic music. There even is a band on a small, movable stage – drums, e-guitar, e-bass – that is wheeled in and out for various scenes.
In all this, I stood, on my feet, immersed in sound: this is the only way I can talk about “Orlando”.
Even before the opera starts, there is a projection of a moving bird swarm across the stage, and, later, there is a faraway chirp of birdsong. Then, just before the hour, a ripple and whisper in the standing room as a figure is moving through the throng of people and takes one of the seats at the laptops: Olga Neuwirth herself, with that trademark concentrated frown, wearing dark-framed glasses, with a dog-eared, large score in Baerenreiter blue, but in a Baerenreiter-eat-your-heart-out size (okay, yes, I was swooning).
There are movable, ceiling high video/projection panels with stunning image quality – adding scenery, showing scrolled text, adding motions and, again and again, giving space to the sight of a hand writing: letters, numbers.*** The hand and the brain, the sensual and the intellectual.
Neuwirth’s sound planes are at times denser, more often filigrane, allowing for motion through layers in listening. The vocal styles threaded into it range from belcanto to chanson, jazz to spoken, rock to declamation. There is a lot of beautiful singing, and it is easy to listen to even if you are not moving inside circles of contemporary music. The sounds are not hidden away, they surround you and open up easily, like ripe capsules of seed.
In between the technical demands, the sheer size of the orchestra, the electronic music, the elaborate costumes, the video projetions and the amount of singers on stage: it does take an aircraft carrier the size of the Vienna State opera to enable and produce a show of such proportions, and to meet its demands. And it is an incredible feat, achieved by seemingly every department that the house has on employ.
In structure, the first part sticks to episodes by Woolf, only the episode with Shelmerdine is delayed into the second part, with their meet-cute set in World War I. This first part is very cohesive, richly layered, and very, very impressive. The second part differs in tone and has lengths towards the end. It covers a lot: both World Wars, the liberation movement of the 60s/70s, Thatcher’s austerity, trans rights, right wing populism, Greta vs. environmental dystopia. The opera ends on “the 8th of December, 2019.” Moving the end of the opera into the present makes a lot of sense: “Orlando” is a piece of a (queer) woman in their present thinking about history.
This is not a production for Orlando fans who want to identify with a character and look for a psychological-emotive stage direction. “Orlando” happens in overflowing tableaus set with sparse decorations (the actual stage sets are the costumes by COMMEdesGARÇONS which are amazing. I never knew what a statement piece is, now I do): the movable stage, a couch, a bed, a table, the metal ribs of a ship’s hull. In this, the opera offers layered, moving tableaus to contemplate rather than a plot to follow.
The video panels are vital in providing scenery, context and comment at differing times, moving seamlessly into ever-new constellations.
Th multi-layeredness is something I associate strongly with Neuwirth. It comes with the self-reflexivity (of women, of writing, of art) and it shows in countless quotes, both muscial and texutal, that turn “Orlando” into a creative hub unthinkable without others.
Orlando themselves/herself appears on their own (mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, who outdoes herself in this incredibly demanding role), but also threefold, flanked by the gentle irony of the narrator (who seems at times Woolf, at times Orlando – embodied by Anna Clementi) and the figure of a Guardian Angel (countertenor Eric Jurenas, a voice type Neuwirth employs frequently for an androgynous in-between). Their voices mesh towards the end in a Rosenkavalieresque sequence, though more searching that opulent, never once restful.
Neuwirth and the staging show subjectivity constituted through outside influences, created by social contexts, not as a stable a priori. Orlando becomes visible not from the inside out, but as a silhouette against which social expectations lap and break like waves.
From my own perception, Part 1 felt to me like an artwork inviting me to interact and contemplate. I was free to choose the interaction, the narration was highly artistic and cohesive. Part 2 was an activist call, relentlessy putting itself into connection with current social issues. The amount of musical quoting made the cohesion of Part 1 slip away for me at times (for example, in the Thatcher 1980s setting).
It is an opera with a strong ethical core: when Sasha leaves, videos of breaking glaciers evoke melting polar caps. Children are shown both as Greta-esque chiffre of hope for a better future, and as abuse victims in a Victorian setting.
Part 2 has a long scene on trans emancipation and genderfluidity as social and legal reality, with trans artist Justin Vivian Bond shouting “Fuck the patriarchy!” into the audience (be still my heart!). Trumpism and populism are shown, yet what stood out most in this second part, both as a political and poetical moment, was Orlando, alone, onstage, behind a black gauze curtain. Then, slowly, one by one, names appear in old, white typewriter script: names of Jews deported and murdered in World War II. More names, and more names, in the end overlapping each other, but each big enough to be read even from the other side of the hall. The music in this scene, quoted, is the Bach double concerto as played by Arnold and Alma Rosé****.
Perhaps thinking about women and women artists and history at our moment in time is impossible without adapting a bit of that preaching tone that Part 2 of “Orlando” has at times? Perhaps it is also a statement on our current realities, that this is the way we find to speak of it: there is so much amiss that not speaking up, screaming and committed to change, would feel empty?
– [Addendum, Dec. 19th] Are the reviews that lament preachiness and ‘overt liberal causes’ in “Orlando” and belittle its multifold political aim also a statement? It is one of Neuwirth’s biggest achievements that she draws the link between the artistic and the political to the forefront and exemplifies how there is no unpolitical art, or space. It is only ever unpolitical from a position of privilege. What Neuwirth puts in front of this specific audience, at this specific site, is staggering:
Just yesterday, byline news in the metro reported that the scandal over child abuse at the State Opera’s ballet academy is dwindling down without any real consequences. Neuwirth’s “Orlando” has a 10-minute-scene on structural violence and child abuse that this this very audience, linked in some cases to these very perpetrators, have to watch and acknowledge.
Vienna State Opera, its burnt out WW2 carcass also featuring on the panels in “Orlando”, was involved, as an institution, in the disprotection and deportation of many Jewish employees, a fact addressed, but not nearly enough, in front of largely conservative audiences (and also members): Neuwirth has this audience witness a scene of several minutes where nothing happens but names of people murdered by the NS regime being projected onto the stage, over a soundtrack of the Jewish former concertmaster and his daughter, who was killed in the camps, playing Bach.
The deadly risk of current British austerity and nationalism isn’t that far away when it hurts singers that State Opera will now perhaps not be able employ as much or as easily any longer. Neuwirth has Orlando’s girfriend tear up a Union Jack and then make out with Orlando in front of an audience that frequents the posh downtown cafés and institutions where queers get kicked out for tamer kisses occasionally (at least 2 documented cases in the past 2 years).
Vienna State Opera is a place where women artists move in a male-dominated environment (evidenced by the fact that the main stage has never seen an opera by a female composer before): Neuwirth writes a scene where Woolf herself speaks about the subversion of words, one where Orlando is attacked for genre-bending, and one where the tea, actual and metaphorical, is served to the male colleagues ignoring Orlando’s writing.
On an opera stage where tenors copiously accused of wandering hands (and worse) still sing and mainstream core repertoire mostly features plots with dying heroines, Neuwirth puts a nonbinary emcee who calles themselves “the token gender non-binary person in this show!” and then has the (in this ditty, fabulous!) choir cheerily sing “It’s so nice to have a ding/It’s so nice to have a vong”.
And faced with a landscape where a right-wing party garners two-digit numbers of votes, “Orlando”, as imagined by Neuwirth, sings “Bella ciao – found the fascists at my door again.”
Tell me again how stating that opera would be or should be unpolitical is not a political choice in itself.
A few impressions and thoughts, in relatively chronological order.
The opera begins with Orlando in shorts and a a billowy white shirt, beating a sandsack with a paddle: the soft thud is contrasted with a military male figure doing the same motion against a mic inside the sandsack: militant masculinity and violence are linked from the start. Across the sliding video screens, the date appears handwritten, 1598, letter by letter.
Only then, Orlando sings, a very low awakening, sounding himself out: “Me… I… Orlando…” [I misheard, it is “I… am… alone…”, but that doesn’t change that first messa di voce on “I” which could probably water one’s crops and turn anyone gay]
The tessitura is strikingly low at first, but Lindsey gets it across without putting pressure into the tone, and it is a very appealing sound, both for its melodiuos and border-crossing qualities (and also as in “I think I just got even gayer”).
Later, when Orlando awakens as a woman, this moment is mirrored, with the same “Me… I… Orlando” sung an octave (?) higher and the tessitura remaining there.
The scene changes and jumps forward in time are marked by images of spinning tops or dreidels, accompanied by melodies that evoke game shows and fairs. I got the impression that, depending on the scenes that were set before or follow, the melodies incorporated material and were at times more fractured than at others.
In the reviews I have seen of “Orlando”, the singers barely get more than a few lines thrown their way. I suspect this is due to the large multimedia spectacle that “Orlando” is, leaving the singers and voices dwarfed at times by everything else that is going on (text is hard to understand throughout, even with mic suport). This opera works in strong images that open up space for thought and offer impulses on many levels, but let me make space and say that there was a lot of excellent singing. The olympic feat of Kate Lindsey in the title role is beyond believable, but also Leigh Melrose as Greene (less so as Shelmerdine, a somewhat paler part) was excellent, also Contance Haumann as the Queen. Of the smaller parts, the three doctors, accompaniying themselves on rhythm instruments, made an impact – among them, in particular Hans Peter Kammerer. The icy gleam of Agneta Eichenholz’ Sasha had a fitting magnetic pull.
The sequence with Elizabeth I is beautiful – the video panels switched to oversized flickering candles, and Constance Haumann appeared in the best costume of the evening, which is a lot to say, among many stunning costumes: a golden crinoline above bright red skirts, with a green-shimmering hair tower. Woolf’s sequence of Orlando being offered the hand of the queen (literally, not metaphorically) is mirrored closely and Orlando, now with an added jacket that is half a cape, half wings, kneels in front of the queen. He still wears shorts.
Orlando’s legs feature prominently in Woolf’s novel because Woolf couldn’t get over the legs of Vita Sackville-West. In trousers. Perhaps this is a queer shortcode, echoed in centuries of trouser roles, because I think every queer woman will be able to empathize when I say that if you’d told me that “Orlando” is basically an elaborate USWNT tryout with music, I would see no lie in that.
I am assuming that Kate Lindsey was cast for her voice only, and not for her legs, but she could also have been cast for her legs. (don’t look at me. Woolf started it. Vita started it!)
Lindsey as Orlando has to do a lot – really a lot – of kneeling, in front of sopranos and beyond, throughout the first part, and yes, I may have left the opera house even gayer than I entered it.
The Sasha episode is framed by the dreamy movement of ice-skaters across the video panels. Sasha (Agneta Eichenholz, playing up cool charms to the max) looks like a frazzled angel, her voice and Orlando’s interweaving just like their putting-oneself-in-front-of-the-other echo in space. Everything about this scene has an ice palast magic, even the Russian Sailor with his turquoise turban is strangely appealing.
Lindsey’s singing is, here and throughout, dominated by a glowing, smooth sound and flowing vocal lines. it is very belcanto, the melodious focus removed from e.g. the voice art approach to her 2018 Nerone in Salzburg. In the second part, there are parts of speaking, of declamation and of rock/pop singing, in a sheer endless array of demands, but the majority is still belcanto in style – she gets several high piani that she pulls back with excellent command.
When Sasha leaves, the ice skaters disappear and harsh rain falls across the video screens, and Orlando cries “Sasha!” like Stanley calls “Stella!” in “Streetcar named Desire”, and what an aptly named streetcar that is.
The oak tree that is projected for the oak tree scene could give the “Lord of the Rings” a run for its money, but the scene stealer is Leigh Melrose’s Greene, with body prostethics and a blue sequin dress, dancing and fake-fawning over a naive Orlando. The doctors who try to wake the sleeping Orlando, pompous and ridiculous and precisely acted and sung, also make an impact.
The Istanbul sequence is cut very short; more time is spent on Orlando’s sleep – we see a video close up of one closed, sleeping eye (there are several instances of live camera-feed recorded on scene) in black and white, while on the video panels, Orlando’s awaking as a woman is marked by sequences of first hands, then legs, moving and creating an atmosphere of intimacy through the sensual sliding of limbs.
It is followed by one of my favorite moments, Orlando aboard a stylized ship, traveling back to England against a video projection of a moving sea. When she learns of the discrimination of women, she orders “Turn the ship around!” only to find herself, as a woman, ignored. Lindsey’s delivery of the follow-up huff “Well, I shall be glad I never have to mount another warhorse again!” is spot-on.
Likewise set-up with irony – a register mostly reserved to the never-intrusive, warm and seamlessly extending narrator’s tone of Anna Clementi – is the following sequence of Lady Orlando serving tea to her fellow writers Dryden, Addison and Pope, who are each playing up their flamboyant costumes to maximum effect (Addison (?) evoking Princess Leia!). There is a microphone somewhere on the table and one hears, loudly, every piece of sugar dropped into a cup by an aggravated Orlando, who wants to talk about her writing but is ignored beyond her tea by the men (the white, privileged men) around her.
Orlando dropping sugar pieces with growing passive-aggressiveness, stating “They drink my tea, but ignore my poetry!” is both a description and a mood. Show me the woman with whom this scene would not resonate. More so, show me the writing woman with whom this scene would not resonate!
The first part concludes with a large sequence set in the Victorian era addressing child abuse, in a condensed, artistic manner. Against photo stills of young women, still girls, in white apron dresses, a large number of children in nightshirts is on stage, more children’s singing sounds from the chandeleer high above the parquet seats. The singing is the 1960s church-ditty “Danke!” (also employed theatrically already by Christoph Marthaler), a well-known tune in the German-speaking countries that is so simple that it is usually played with a half-tone upward modulation on every verse (there are dozens of verses). Here, this performance tradition is used as uncanny audio illustration, as the children’s voices move higher and higher into a register of panic.***** Organ sounds manifest the involvement of the church, footage of primarily working class women addresses the class differences in labor and sexual abuse. On the video panels, towards the end of the scene, there is is the dark outline of a male figure on one panel, and a close-up of a panically widened child’s eye, woken up from sleep, on the other.
Orlando, to the side (she will be set to the side of the stage for much of the second part, sitting first behind a typewriter, then a laptop as she writes), struggles to keep up and bear witness in her writing, attempting to give voice to others even as her own voice is lost in the “Danke!” around her.
Part 2 starts out with the Orlando/Shelmerdine episode, here meeting on a World War I battlefield. Shelmerdine looks like Sad Pappardelle Papageno and the plot line – much more present visually in the program book (where, by the way, Orlando’s later girlfriend does not appear at all) – is not gaining as much traction as in the book. There is a quick wedding, eliciting one of few laughs from the audience on this first night, when the officiant says “And hereby I proclaim you, bla bla bla”.
The “Are you a man?/Are you a woman?” scene is over in the blink of an eye, but with the change of Shelmerdine from a military man to a war photographer, he is is turned into Orladno’s mirror in another way: where she bears witness in writing, he does so through his photos. In their scenes, they seem small individuals, together for short moments in a large, complex system that tosses them around and apart.
The typewriter moment with the names of murdered Jews on the gauze follows (at first, I wondered whether they were all musicians, or all former employees of Vienna State Opera) and Orlando just stands, quietly, alone: bearing witness.
The video panels show the explosion of an atomic bomb and the sound system sends the corresponding boom through the entire house, rattling the the banisters of the standing room area. More time lapses lead through the liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and then Orlando has a girlfriend (Katie La Folle) in a red checkered suit and silver Doc Martens involved. The girlfriend is the only character throughout the evening Orlando actually kisses, which I a mentioning here as a counterpoint to there being no photo of her in the progam book.
A rock band is rolled in on a movable stage and one thing Neuwrith acomplishes is making so many styles and voices audible (both actual and social) that otherwise are never heard on that stage and if for nothing else (though there is plenty else), one should thank her for that. The setting seems to blend into Thatcherism austerity, which I wish were less concurrent right now, while Orlando is attacked, oversized on the video panels, by Greene telling her that her “genre-bending work” would not sell and that he therefore cannot print it.
Orlando replies, the quote covering everything, that words do not like money – there is a larger audio quote, later, of which I wasn’t sure whether it was Woolf herself? [it was]
A larger trans activist scene with Justin Vivian Bond in the lead follows. Their singing, since not moving comfortably through belcnato style, jarred me a bit out of the sequence, though perhaps that was intentional, and it is, again, a statement on the reality of things if I do not have an operatically educated trans singer on the payroll who could do this (though there are some who could do this, I am benevolently assuming they were all booked for this December). The chanson-conferencier part that Bond presents works well, however, and they deliver a call to action speech, thanking “my mom Orlando” who would have paved the way for their child’s genderfluidness.
For me, the scene was a bit too long, losing tension after about two thirds, and I can understand voices who said that they found the sequence too preachy, but then again: People out there are dying as a result of (non-)LGBTQ politics. Singing about it politely in pretty lines may not get the point across. (and yes, that “Fuck the patriarchy!”, in that very hall, was a nice touch met by an internal fist pump on my part)
The populist rise is addressed next, with a distorted figure speaking in a helium-voice speed, and only after a minute, one recognizes Trump. And then Orlando is given space to reply, Lindsey’s face larger than life projected onto the video panels, and she starts out, with resonant voice, to protest – “I resent the notion of making countries great again…”
And, no, there is no way that I can frame my reaction to that impassioned denouncement of Trump (which for Lindsey, as an American, may have held additional layers of meaning) in that voice in a way that is fit for public consumption. (Can I still get any gayer, or have I used up my quota already?)
Orlando is singing “Bella ciao” against the populists (“Bella ciao, bella ciao — found the fascists at my door again”), standing half turned away on a set of stairs, accompanied by her child and her alter egos, and the crowd both on stage and in the gall seemed to wave it off, and I rooted for her all the more.
In the end (and it is a long final scene), Orlando is sat in a dystopian mood desert a red grid projected around her, the children’s choirs and her companions through time gathered around her as a last resort of hope for a better future.
Orlando sits on a stone, the thinking poet bearing witness in their writings and trying to imagine a brighter future. She quotes the “ich saz uf einem steine” Vogelweide iconography, and then Lindsey delivers a stop the clock moment: after nearly three hours of constant singing, she has a large unaccompanied coloratura solo to do, lots of fioriture, and she does so flawlessly. I don’t think she gets nearly enough credit for the sheer physical and stylistic demands she meets in this role, time and again, and her singing is balanced, even and expressive throughout. Give this woman all the awards.
Also, did I mention the legs. (Sorry. Still gay. Still Woolf’s fault)
The opera ends with a flying child – a putto – covered in lights like a Christmas tree – a little ham-handed as an allegory of hope, but I’ll take what I can get in hopes. And Orlando keeps writing, noting, at the end, the date: “It is Sunday, the 8th of December, 2019.”
Among the first applause, there was an immediate curtain for a visibly relieved Lindsey, who, I will say this again, does incredible work here.
When Neuwirth – ushered out next to us, to whispers again – walked onto the stage, she was met with cheers, and the parquet stood as one (after I had the privilege to witness her at work from a close distance the more than three hours before this curtain call: the composer, her – likely handwritten? Neuwirth does all of her scores by hand, as far as I know – score, her focus.)
This may well be Neuwirth’s opus magnum: and opera that is a credo regarding being a woman working creatively in a world that is still a man’s world in structure in many instances. Experience this, if you can – it will be streamed tonight.
Today is Wednesday, the 18th of December.
Guess who is standing in line right now to see this another time.
* (a colleague from the art faculty crowd saw this, a staunch butch, said to me afterwards, with shiny eyes and something close to awe in her voice: “We have an opera now, I cannot believe it. – Also, Lindsey has really great legs.”)
** (special mention to the two female music students across from me in the standing room queur, oh-ing and ah-ing over the mezzos on the program covers on display in the hall – “oh my God, look, Garanča! She is sooo beautiful!”)
***(Neuwirth does her writing by hand. Perhaps those are her hands, even)
**** (Arnold Rosé (1863-1946) was the longtime concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, forced into British exile in 1938. His daughter Alma (1906-1944), also a famous violonist, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.)
***** Apparently, the rightholders of the “Danke” song would like it to be noted that they did not enjoy this scene. See Ricordi comment below.